EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have their backs against the wall with five games left.
Just 10 days ago, Minnesota once sat at 5-5 and seemed primed to make a push for a postseason berth in the NFC.
Since then? The Vikings have lost back-to-back road games, including a demoralizing, last-second defeat Sunday to the previously winless Lions.
Minnesota now sits at 5-7 and is trying to keep its playoffs hopes alive as Pittsburgh (6-5-1) comes to town for a Week 14 game on Thursday Night Football. Click here to view remaining ticket options.
"Every game from here on out is a must-win," said Vikings safety Xavier Woods. "We have five left, and every one is a must-win to get where we want to go."
Justin Jefferson echoed Woods' thoughts.
"Every one is a must-win. We want to win every single one," Jefferson said. "We don't want to go into the game with that losing [mindset], and we're not really worrying about the record.
"We're just worrying about the game Thursday, trying to get a win and then we're going to move forward after the game," Jefferson added.
The Vikings sit just one game back of a Wild Card spot, but have some work to do and might need some help down the stretch.
But the first step toward getting back on track begins Thursday night in prime time. Perhaps playing so quickly after the Lions loss will help the Vikings turn the page.
"Yeah, we've got to get focused quickly on this game," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "Short week. A lot of preparation on a short week. Extra film study. More mental than it is physical this week."
Pittsburgh is in the running for a Wild Card spot in the AFC.
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 14:
Zimmer sees a familiar foe | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
Thursday night's game will mark the 15th total time Zimmer has gone up against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The bulk of those meetings (one dozen, in fact) came when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati and saw Roethlisberger twice a year from 2008-13. The two also saw each other during Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004, when Zimmer was the Cowboys defensive coordinator, and again in 2017 when the Vikings played in Pittsburgh.
Zimmer, who is 4-10 as a coach or coordinator in his career against Roethlisberger, said this week he has tremendous respect for the quarterback on the field.
"He's been, for all the time I was in Cincinnati and played against them, he was always a tough out," Zimmer said.
Zimmer later added:
"He's really good with seeing the pressures and where the sight is and where the hots are and getting the ball out. Maybe he doesn't run quite as much as he used to. He was really never a runner, but he's a strong, physical guy to get on the ground. He still throws the deep ball great.
"Very smart and savvy with where he wants to go with the ball and gets them in the right play a ton of times," Zimmer continued. "He does a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage, so hopefully our crowd will be nice and loud. But I don't really see much difference in him. The passing game is very similar to what it has been for a very long time. Maybe a few more RPOs than when I was there. But, you know, he's good."
Roethlisberger is in his 18th season in Pittsburgh and has declined to talk about his future beyond the final five games, so there's a chance this could be the final meeting between the two.
Roethlisberger has thrown nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in Pittsburgh's seven games this season where they have won or tied. But in the Steelers five losses, he his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 7 to 6.
Put another way, Minnesota's chances to win will increase if they can intercept the 39-year-old quarterback. Perhaps Zimmer will have something special dialed up for the familiar foe.
Facing Steelers without Thielen | By @LindseyMNSports
It doesn't sound like Adam Thielen will miss the remainder of Minnesota's season, but he has been ruled out against the Steelers this week.
Zimmer told media members prior to Tuesday's practice that Thielen was "moving around a little bit." Asked if not putting Thielen on Injured Reserve means he's expected to return at some point, Zimmer said, "Yeah."
With Thielen out, it's safe to say Justin Jefferson will have nearly the full attention of Pittsburgh's defense. It's a situation he's been in before, though, and Jefferson isn't intimidated. He said he "remembers like yesterday" the Week 12 game against Carolina last season, when Thielen was sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19.
View photos of wide receivers Justin Jefferson and K.J. Osborn showcasing the team's Primetime Purple uniforms.
"Defenses focused on me a little bit, but we still had an overall good game," Justin said. "I think, like, three receivers had seven catches that game, so I mean, if one man's down, the next man's up. You can't really get frustrated over that. You've just got to keep playing and make sure everybody's on the same page."
Jefferson's memory serves correctly. He, Bisi Johnson and Chad Beebe each had seven catches against the Panthers in Thielen's absence, as did tight end Kyle Rudolph. None of those players, with the exception of course of Jefferson, will be playing in Thursday's game, but Cousins still has options.
Dede Westbrook and K.J. Osborn likely will get additional opportunities in the passing game, as well as tight end Tyler Conklin and potentially running backs Alexander Mattison and Kene Nwangwu.
"You so appreciate having depth. You so appreciate having a K.J. Osborn when Adam goes down," Kirk Cousins said. "You always know it's a play away, but when it happens and you know you have somebody who can answer the call, it's a great sense of comfort at my position."
View photos of Vikings players' custom cleats in honor of the NFL's 2021 My Cause My Cleats initiative that allows players to express their commitment to causes that are important to them.
Vikings pass protection vs. prolific challenge | By @pcraigers
Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin is just the third man to hold the title in Pittsburgh in the past 52 years. He was hired in 2007, replacing Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020 member Bill Cowher, who had replaced 1993 enshrinee Chuck Noll (1969-91).
Tomlin's teams have carried on the gritty tradition established in the Steel City by Noll and Cowher, usually with a stalwart defense.
Since 2007, the Steelers lead the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-attempt percentage of 8.2. The Rams rank second at 7.7 percent, and the Vikings are third at 7.4 percent. All are well ahead of the NFL average of 6.6 percent in that time span. Tomlin's teams have recorded an NFL-best 304 sacks in 117 regular-season road games since 2007.
Pittsburgh leads the NFL this season with 37 sacks (Minnesota is second with 36), and outside linebacker T.J. Watt is atop the league with 16 this season, thanks in part to 3.5 against Baltimore on Sunday.
"Number one, he's smart," Zimmer said. "Great rusher. Quick off the line of scrimmage. Good power. And then I think he sees things really well. Most great players, they have really good vision, so they see a lot of different things. He fights through chips, understands where the protection's going, things like that."
Additionally, Vikings offensive linemen must understand that the motor never really stops running. Beyond winning battles outright, Watt is more than ready to clean up a play when a teammate pressures the pocket.
With Christian Darrisaw ruled out, the Vikings could be in line to go with the combination of LT Olisaemeka Udoh, LG Ezra Cleveland, C Garrett Bradbury, RG Mason Cole and RT Brian O'Neill that it used in Detroit.
The change of three players rather than just putting Rashod Hill back at left tackle may have been an attempt to get that combination work together so that this game wouldn't be the first time that grouping was used. Zimmer mentioned it might provide the "best option" without Darrisaw.
But a Lions team that has 19 sacks on the season (tied for the second fewest in the NFL) recorded 3.0 of Cousins and forced a fumble.
Cousins said he has "great respect" for Pittsburgh's pass rush when asked this week about feeling the rush while working behind a group with so many changes.
"We understand that challenge, and we've got to work this week to be ready to go," Cousins said. "It really takes everybody. It takes the line, but it takes tight ends and running backs, it takes myself getting rid of the ball or feeling the rush and moving, and it takes coaches and the plan and play calls. So there's so many pieces that go into when you play a really strong pass rush, and that's the challenge we have this week."
View photos of Vikings players from practice on Dec. 7 at the TCO Performance Center.
Notable Number: 9
This will be the 19th overall meeting between the Vikings and Steelers, but will feature the ninth different venue the teams have met at.
Here is an interesting look at the different sites that have hosted the Minnesota-Pittsburgh matchups over the years:
Forbes Field: 1962
Metropolitan Stadium: 1964, 1969, 1976, 1980
Pitt Stadium: 1967
Three Rivers Stadium: 1972, 1983, 1989, 1992, 1995
Tulane Stadium: 1976 (Super Bowl IX)
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Steelers.
Metrodome: 1986, 2005
Heinz Field: 2001, 2009, 2017
Wembley Stadium (London): 2013
U.S. Bank Stadium: 2021
The Vikings and Steelers have split their 18 matchups with nine wins apiece.